La persona especial

Okay, so, here it finally is: my persona especial post.

This year, instead of starting with stories right away, I decided to mix in my usual beginning-of-Spanish activities (Brown Bear, counting games, TPR, etc.) with La Persona Especial. I used Bryce’s handy guide to give me an idea of what I was going to do, but since I am well acquainted with PQA, it wasn’t that hard for me as a teacher. Really, it’s just PQA focused all on one student. Today, we had a bit of a weird schedule so I asked a student to be a volunteer for this. Not only did I have a student volunteer, it was one who hadn’t previously been an interview candidate, so that was great! In this clip, we speed through the introductory stuff because my students have it down pretty well. Rewatching it, I could’ve spent a little more time verbally verifying that the rest of the class was understanding what was going on, but I was “teaching to the eyes” and their eyes told me that yes, they got it. (You can see in the video when I appear to be staring into space. I’m actually checking in on the other students while my interviewee is thinking of his response.) They also were great about responding when I asked for a class response, even though they were sparse.)

My process generally follows that of Bryce’s. I do an interview with one student (I set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes, just to keep myself from wandering) while the rest of the class listens and watches. They do not take any notes; I write anything I need to on the board. After the interview, I will do some sort of recap activity. Students can tell a partner what they remember, I might make true/false statements, or whatever. Then they open their laptops and actually add to their notes. The first few interviews, I then had everyone share something and I typed it up in proper Spanish. We’re about halfway through now, so at this point, I just look at their screens while they’re working and correct any errors that impede comprehensibility. After three interviews, we took a quiz. (My classes are small, so I have sections of 10 and 9 respectively – you may want to have more in each quiz grouping.)  I picked some examples to show you all as a sample of their work. Sample #1 comes from a student that has no prior Spanish knowledge but I suspect will go all 4 years with me. Sample #2 is from an average student with average mistakes. Sample #3 is from another potential superstar student who has studied a bit of Spanish through Rosetta Stone. However, as you can see, her prior knowledge doesn’t really make her writing leaps and bounds better than the others. Each student is very comprehensible. These samples are after about 25 days of Spanish class. I normally let students keep their assessments, but tonight we have parent-teacher conferences and I kept these to show parents what their students are able to do in my class. It is super cool to show a parent that their child, after a little over a month, can read and write simple paragraphs.



So there it is! I am more than happy to answer any questions or offer any help that I can. I’m no expert by any means, but La Persona Especial is so easy, any of us can do it!

PS: Here is a link to a blank copy of my quiz/rubric. Feel free to make a copy of it, change it, whatever you need to do to fit your class and philosophy.

Gender and sexual orientation in the classroom

In honor of Women’s History Month and gay marriage being almost legalized in Nebraska (so close!), I’ve been kicking around this post in my head for a while.

Wording and phrasing about gender and sexual orientation is something I struggle a lot with in my classes. On the one side, I am someone who believes that a person should be able to express their identity however they please. Truly, it makes no difference to me if a student is GLBT. (Not that I don’t care – I very much do, but I only get to make decisions about my life, not anyone else’s.) I try very hard to make it clear through my statements and actions that I am welcoming to people of all sexual orientations and gender expressions – probably even more than my students even realize exist. I know that some of my students have to be GLBT; that’s just statistics. But I also don’t want to out them before they’re ready, and I want them to know that I am 212% an ally. I freely discuss my friendships with lesbians (mostly through roller derby) and gay men (mostly through college), and I also have some transpeople and a few gender free friends in my life. In other words: I try not to assume that everyone is straight and their gender matches their biological appearance.

However, my sticking point is that regardless of my personal beliefs on gender identity, expression, and sexual orientation, many of my students’ life experiences are based on their gender. Society is really, really good at enforcing gender roles, even if those roles have expanded slightly over the years. When I was a little girl (elementary age), I truly thought that I was weird because I was a girl and good at math. Everyone knew that boys were good at math and science and sports, and girls were good at reading and doing house stuff and taking care of babies. Duh.

Obviously, as I got older I reconciled my incorrect assumptions about who is naturally good at what. What I still struggle with is that boys appear to be naturally better at some things than girls, and vice versa. One of my favorite Mythbusters episodes looked at who was better at throwing a baseball, males or females. It turns out that males are dominant… until they have to throw with their non-dominant arm, in which case the results are very similar between the two sexes. Rather, it appears that males are better at throwing because they are more likely to practice throwing a ball from a young age, as ‘playing catch’ is a stereotypical male activity. When Jamie and Adam compare world-class pitchers, their form is the same.

As a teacher of teenagers, the differences between genders become more pronounced. My female students do not have the same life experiences as my male students, and vice versa. Socially, there are different images being pounded into their brains of what is socially acceptable as beautiful and what’s not. There are different expectations of behavior. Different expectations of career choice. Different expectations of everything, really. And then there are the unpleasant statistics about male behaviors towards females.

Another major issue is that I teach Spanish. Spanish in itself is a gendered language; you can’t get away from it. Even if you can avoid using pronouns thanks to Spanish’s subject-verb ambiguity, you get stuck on the adjectives. Do you just pick the default masculine? I have no idea.

So at the end of the day, I always try to figure out, how can I best meet the needs of all my students? How do I acknowledge that there are major differences in the perceptions of men and women, and that most people ascribe to the gender binary, without feeling like I might be excluding that one kid who says ‘no, this doesn’t describe me’? How do I show, not just tell, my students that my room is a safe space for freedom of gender expression and sexual orientation? How do I reliably keep my room a safe space for those students?

I don’t have the answers, but at least I’m thinking about them.

Acts of intentional kindness

So we’re well underway in the second semester with our new superintendent at East Butler, Mr. Sam Stecher. I think I’ve previously mentioned that I really enjoy working with him because we’re on the same wavelength when it comes to managing student success. That is to say, we both feel that positive student-teacher relationships are a huge predictor of having a well-managed, efficient, engaging classroom. I think that this goes doubly for language teachers because a good portion of our job is to learn personal information about our students through our target language. On top of that, I work in a very small rural school. I have 3 classes that consist of one student. (To be fair, two of those are independent study, but still.) My biggest is 19. I’m the only Spanish teacher, which means that by the time my students get to Spanish 4, we know each other quite well.

But Mr. Stecher encourages us to go one step beyond just being nice in the classroom. He encourages the staff to be in the hallways, and he himself is very visible around the school and makes himself very approachable to the students. He asks us to complete the missions from Mission Monday that focus on promoting positive contact. Another thing he has talked about at various PD meetings is the idea of acts of intentional kindness. Acts of random kindness are nice, he says, but they don’t create a long lasting effect. It is repeated, intentional acts that will foster the cultural growth we’re looking for. Working with teenagers can be hard – after all, they are people-in-progress and sometimes are not very nice – but for some of them, we’re the only nice adults they’ve got for role models.

It is with these acts of intentional kindness in mind that I have (somewhat accidentally) started positive relationships where I won’t see the outcome for years. During one act season, I had to go through the library on a Friday after school to get some stuff out of the attic for our play. I didn’t know at the time, but I tromped right through our elementary HAL (high ability learners) group work time. The HAL group competes in a robotic competition and also does a presentation on problem-solving. Since I felt bad for invading their workspace and figured having students show me their learning would be way more interesting than grading papers, I asked some students to explain to me what they were doing. (Teacher thought: if they can sufficiently explain to me what they are doing and how they are doing it, they clearly understand the material and learning happened!)

What I saw was awesome. I had all these elementary students – who I don’t even know – clamoring to tell me about their robot. They were so excited to have a visitor who took a genuine interest in what they were doing. Then I visited the production group, who was using iPads to create videos to explain their inventions for scientists in the desert. This group, in particular, was very outgoing. I ended up not getting any of my grading done, but at the time I was just enjoying talking to these kids. I didn’t realize I had laid the foundation for my teaching future.

The next week, I happened to need to go into the library again. As soon as I walked in, the production group shouted my name and one girl even ran up and gave me a hug. High school teachers: how often are your students THAT excited to see you? I felt like a rock star. So ever since then, I have made it a point to say hi to these students if I see them waiting to go into art (which is down the hall from me) or in the lunchroom. I also don’t have 7th or 8th graders, but I try to say hi (with their name if I know it!) when situations allow for it. Why? Well, not just because I’m nice, but my niceness has an intention: I am building a relationship with these students.

You see, if I have this student – we’ll take the one who gave me a hug, she’s a 3rd grader – and I am friendly and kind to her for the next *6* years before she theoretically enters my classroom as a freshman, I have 6 years of positive feeling and goodwill built up. That is a lot of dollars in the relationship bank. If I can make positive contact with even 5 kids in each grade before they get to me, that’s about 1/4 of the student body who will already be on my side the moment they step through my door. That is going to ultimately make my classroom a fun, easy-going, friendly place with way less effort on my part.

In other words, right now I am putting in little bits of change into my relationship banks with these students. A high five here, a kind word there, a friendly wave and a smile. It doesn’t take much. After collecting interest on those relationship banks for years, there will be plenty of kindness to withdraw when they eventually enter my classroom as Spanish learners and I have to ask them to do things they don’t want to do. Not all of us are lucky enough to work in a K-12 building, but are there any ways you can make positive contact before students land in your classroom? How can you put spare change into those relationship banks?